Frostbite Sailing




Frostbite is a noun and normally refers to a skin condition resulting from over exposure to cold. Although the word "bite" is both a noun and a verb, the verbalized form of "frostbite" first appeared around 1932. I understand that a reporter who watched a bunch of guys sailing in a snow storm called them "frostbiters" in a newspaper article. The name stuck.

It might have been William Taylor, yachting correspondent for The New York Herald, who covered the first New Year's Day Frostbite Regatta on Manhasset Bay, Long Island Sound in 1932. Weather conditions were ideal for these hardy sailors. There was rain, hail and snow, but most importantly, there was wind. When Taylor reported on the event, he captured the spirit that has driven frostbiters for decades. "The idea of a Frostbite Regatta," he wrote, "is to prove that some people are crazier than others and those who are craziest sail races in 11-foot boats in the middle of snowstorms -- and enjoy it."

Long before teenagers did snowboarding, their grandparents raced horse-drawn carriages and sailors raced boats. In commerce as well as in war, it is important to have the biggest, most durable or fastest vehicle. The skills and physical condition of people who drive, ride or sail is equally important.

It should not surprise anyone that such competitiveness would birth sporting events. The Egyptians had their chariot races, Greeks invented the Olympic games and Eskimos had dog sled races.

Modern sports is baffling if not downright weird. People who drive fast cars in circles, shoot basketballs, hit baseballs, kick soccer balls, and fight over footballs or hockey pucks, get paid millions. Stadiums filled with spectators pay big bucks to watch.

People also pay a few dollars to watch rodeos, but the bull and bronc riders, who take greater risks than NASCAR drivers and football players, get no pay and even cover their own expenses.

When kids dream up some new sport like skateboarding or hot dogging, TV networks fight to obtain the exclusive rights to cover events, but frostbiting hardly earns a yawn.

A videotographer named Thurston Smith has been working on a frostbiting documentary and uploaded a trailer on YouTube a couple of years ago:

When the weather is ideal for frostbiting, it is worst for filming. Pity the poor photographer, who tries to operate his camera with frozen fingers and shivering limbs. And the sky is usually overcast. You can hardly film a frostbiter regatta from the beach, because the action takes place out there on the water in tiny sailboats with iced rigging and frozen sailors. Because you never know which boat is going to tip over when, the photographer would need a camera on every boat to catch the action.

Thurston Smith has finished his frostbiter documentary and posted it on YouTube:

The rising popularity of extreme sports is powered by many factors, recognition, fame, popularity or money. People who frostbite do it for fun and don't care if others are watching.

Frostbiting is hardly a spectator sport. The spouse of a frostbiter can't bear to watch and others prefer sitting in their warm living room or den watching other sporting events. Spectators of frostbiting would have to endure everything the photographer has to deal with, but in the end, there are no winners or losers! On the other hand, every sailor feels like a winner, even if he or she (yes, there are girls who frostbite) got a cold bath. Thawing out around a fireplace in the clubhouse, there are no unhappy sailors!

In 75 years of frostbite sailing, there has never been a recorded death, but then few people are crazy enough to try it and even fewer interested in watching and recording the results.

If I wasn't past my prime (I'm 82), I too would be out there having fun. I have owned several boats used for frostbiting, an Inter Club, an O'day Sprite, a Laser and an extremely rare Iota. My most recent frostbite acquisition is a Skimmar Sea Dog that needs lots of attention. I'm tempted to try it, but my wife doesn't want me to become the first fatal statistic in frostbite sailing history!

Old Frostbite Photos

Modern frostbiter regatta in less than ideal weather conditions